What can we actually know about Sandro Botticelli? What can we possibly know? These are two different questions, and we can only answer the latter – the educated guess being no more valid than an emotional one.
Botticelli’s face proves how much more he was than a generic woodcut printed in the frontispiece of Dante’s Divine Comedy, a book he illustrated.
A self-portrait, more than any other, is an accurate representation of a physical person. Behold, a haughty moment captured from a prolonged gaze in a mirror. Introspection fused to a real reflection.
Vanity? Perhaps. Here is a man turned out for deliberate remembrance critiqued to the full extent of his professional examination. Clean-shaven and well-dressed, titian hair aglow. Eyes blazing life. Fire under the skin. Smouldering. Here is a whole person. Here is Tuscan sunshine glinting off the gold threads of an apricot cloak.
An image of oneself usually survives vanity only after it is found favorable. Is it flattery? Most definitely. Why else would a professional portrait painter abuse his best mode of self-promotion?
But the first question haunts us. What do we absolutely know? We know Botticelli once lived and there were days when he breathed under an apricot cloak. We know this cloak is now dust – lost in the refuse of daily things. We know Sandro has been a child and a teenager and an old man. We know that the days during which Botticelli painted his portrait, he walked away from his mirror to eat and drink. He laughed or despaired, concentrating between sips of wine, and then he painted. We know that at one precise moment he set aside his brushes, deciding his work was done, which is a significant moment for an artist.
We know Botticelli’s Adoration of 1475 was left to dry in the musty air of an artist’s studio, wet and vulnerable in a corner, while other work continued around it. It is clear that no serious accidents befell it when it passed from hand-to-hand. And, we know Sandro’s portrait remains alive as testament to his chance for creative immortality.
But, back to my subjective view as an author: Botticelli is having an intimate tease with us. Do you not feel it? He is there. He has survived five-hundred years of dust to meet us face to face. To stare into our eyes, soul-to-soul. Botticelli is ours now, to marvel at his silenced thoughts transmitted from eye-to-eye. I believe he was well satisfied with his portrait.
“Here I am,” it says. “While you’re trying to read me, I’m trying to guess who you are. Have we met? Could we? Yes, we’re meeting now. My name is Sandro, and you are …?”